Chris and Rihanna Give Us the Blues, Again
They join a tradition of singers whose art reflects a repeating cycle of domestic violence.
In her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Y. Davis lauded blueswomen such as Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey for taking what was often private, individual hell and pushing it into the public sphere, where it can be called out and named for what it is. Domestic violence knows no racial or class boundaries, but when it is addressed publicly, it is still the stuff of hushed tones and concern about those poor, distant, mostly unknown women.
When we watch these women on the emotional roller coaster, wrapped up in a swirl of conflicting emotions about their lover-abuser, there is also an opportunity to truly open up a conversation with our girls and our boys about the choices we make and the cycles that are perpetuated.
Fame has a caustic effect on relationships. And for popular musicians in all genres, those offstage tensions create the narrative tension that compels audiences to tune in and watch what happens next.
The allure of forbidden love brought heat to many of Houston's performances. During a 1999 performance celebrating the 25th anniversary of Arista Records, she sang a slow, defiant rendition of "I Will Always Love You." In the middle of the performance, she pauses for effect as her beleaguered husband, Bobby Brown, swaggers onstage carrying a glass of water. They spend a few long seconds locked in a passionate kiss. He hands her the water, then Bobby saunters off the stage while his wife blows the roof off.
Bobby Brown, his own career stalled, is the kept man, literally carrying her water. With his bad-boy stance, he's telling the audience: She's gorgeous. She's mine. She's working for me. Big middle finger to all of y'all who don't think I'm good enough for her!
He couldn't resist sending a similar message at his ex-wife's funeral. He played out the good girl-bad boy melodrama to the very end by kissing Whitney's casket and storming out in a self-righteous fury over seating arrangements.
Still, I'm not convinced that, despite Houston and Bobby Brown's carefully crafted public personas, it wasn't a good boy led astray by a bad girl. And we may never know.
But unlike Houston or any other of their historical predecessors flouting forbidden love, what makes the Chris Brown-Rihanna affair so heartbreaking is that we do know this: Rihanna was beaten and left for dead, and we have seen the photos to prove it.
Many of us would like Rihanna to fall into the narrative of the über-strong survivor in the Tina Turner mold who moves on to bigger and better things and never looks back. But for whatever reason, she's not that person. And as an artist, she does not have to be that person. She just has to be herself.
I'm glad we can learn from her choices. I just hope that the story of the promising young artist with a penchant for self-destruction ends differently this time.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.